Economics for a Full Planet
“Optimums over maximums, quality over quantity, better over bigger; eco over ego, we over me”
When I arrived at WorldBeat Café, I walked up to the counter to order my usual light morning breakfast — coffee and a croissant. A lovely smile emerged from behind the large pastry case.
It took a few moments to break my gaze away from those gleaming white teeth and look up to see a perfectly proportioned nose; large, brown eyes; and straight, jet-black hair.
Two large golden hoop earrings dangled just above her slender shoulders. She had a slim figure wrapped loosely in a light, colorful sarong of vibrant teal and magenta swirls.
It was her! — the mysterious young woman with the cute little blue ukulele who had joined our Saturday morning Community Music Circle for a too-short time at the green market several months ago.
“Hello, Mister Rico. Your usual breakfast?”
She had apparently been given a heads up by the café manager about the ‘regular’ that comes in, often carrying a guitar and backpack, and usually wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a scruffy brown 'Playing for Change' ball cap with sunglasses perched on top.
Her smile suggested she recognized me from the Music Circle gathering, but I couldn’t be sure. I don’t think I’d ever seen her not smiling.
“Yes, my usual, a beer-and-peanut-butter smoothie topped with a swirl of spicy mustard.”
I wondered what reaction that ridiculous order might get.
Not missing a beat, and acting rather surprised, she responded,
“OMG! That’s my favorite too!”
And then burst into laughter. We both enjoyed the silliness.
I told her about my recent adventure crewing aboard a Polynesian double-canoe sailboat in the South Pacific and gave her a quick summary of all the highlights, cast, and crew. I was anxious to move on to questions about her.
She giggled curiously when I pronounced ‘Kalea’, the name of the boat.
“Wow! That’s an amazing experience, Mister Rico. I'm truly envious.”
I asked her where she was from. I wanted to know more about this mysterious cheerful stranger that had joined our musical group that Saturday.
She explained she had just moved here from an island in the Caribbean — she didn’t specify which one — and that she was working at the café part-time while going to school.
Naturally, I asked her what she was studying,
“Sounds interesting. What’s that all about?”
Ecological economics is a growing transdisciplinary field based on the systems sciences and scientific worldview of today — not of 200 years ago. Unfortunately, old science and an overly simplistic, mechanistic worldview still dominate our mainstream economic discussions today, she explained.
In contrast, ecological economics embraces the full spectrum of current social, natural, behavioral, evolutionary, and systems sciences and brings the full potential of our intellectual capital to bear on the huge financial and ecological problems we now face.
It attempts to bridge the cleverness of our sciences with the wisdom in our moral philosophy to create a more honest, fair, and fitting human economic story for our times.
And most importantly, ecological economics fundamentally challenges the patently absurd notion of infinite growth on a finite planet.
It points out that the Earth is now well past being 'full' in terms of our human presence and impact on the environment.
It proposes a model of ethical and sustainable development for mature economies like ours, that can no longer afford to keep growing indefinitely, based on three interdependent core principles.
~ SUSTAINABLE SCALE of material and energy inflows and waste outflows. This could mean imposing global caps on annual resource usages and waste flows and perhaps tightening those caps year-on-year until the global economy is back within safe, sustainable planetary boundaries.
~ JUST AND FAIR DISTRIBUTION of resources, wealth, income, and opportunities.
~ ECONOMIC EFFICIENCY in the allocation of those resources.
A mature economy is one that no longer needs to grow in order for human society to continue to thrive.
“Put simply, Mister Rico, it's now all about optimums over maximums, quality over quantity, better over bigger; eco over ego, we over me.”
I glanced behind me to see if there were any other customers in line behind me. There weren’t.
“Tell me more.”
It really all comes down to this: we now require a very different regenerative and circular economy that recognizes the obvious truth that the human economy is embedded in, and a part of, Earth’s regenerative and circular biophysical systems.
Cycles and flows of energy, matter, entropy, and biogeochemical processes must all be factored into all economic models at every level.
It is an economic system grounded in the realities of a world that is effectively filled to capacity with people and must now accept and operate within the biophysical limits of a finite planet and the moral obligations of a just society.
Fertile topsoil, freshwater reserves, clean air, ocean fisheries, healthy rainforests, and cheap-to-extract fossil fuels — on which literally billions of lives depend — all are being depleted at an accelerating rate. Many countries are on the verge of resource crisis. These trends have to stop and, in many cases, be reversed.
In order to achieve more balanced living on our full planet and ethically and sustainably respond to these challenges, we would need to do several things, she explained:
Slow down and stabilize human population growth by meeting unmet demand for family planning and for educating girls
Achieve universal gender equality
Stop and reverse greenhouse gas emissions
More equitably share resources, wealth, income, and work while reducing work hours
Invest in the natural and social capital ‘commons’ and in public goods and services
Reform the financial system to better reflect real assets and liabilities
Create better measures of progress than ‘GDP growth’
Reform tax systems so that ‘bads,’ like resource depletion and pollution, are taxed rather than ‘goods,’ like value-added labor
Develop, promote, and freely share scientific and technical knowledge that advances human and ecosystem well-being rather than GDP growth
Establish strong, deep democratic decision-making processes in all organizations
Create a strong mainstream ethic and culture of health, resilience, self-reliance, sufficiency, and well-being rather than mindless manic consumerism
End business practices of planned obsolescence
She stated emphatically,
“It must be remembered, that the human economy is, after all, only a means to an end — and that end is sustainable human well-being(!), not infinite GDP growth.”
Clearly, humans do not have primary needs for the specific products and services of the economy necessarily, but rather for food, shelter, clothing, security, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and a sense of freedom.
Yet the misguided goals of endless economic growth, consumerism, and loosely regulated global free-market capitalism has fallen short on meeting these primary needs universally and instead created severe income and wealth inequalities across many societies and growing risks of ecological collapse.
We must stop clinging to feel-good delusions, denials, and distractions and begin the serious and necessary work of transitioning from a global culture that values endless growth and virtual wealth — money — to a culture that values prosperity and real wealth — healthy people, happy places, and a habitable planet for future generations.
“Not such a radical concept, is it, Mister Rico?”
“Not at all. Seems like those concepts should be discussed at every level of education — starting, like, yesterday! Lua would surely approve.”
She looked surprised and smiled when I mentioned ‘Lua’ and was just about to ask me something when she was interrupted by a gruff, impatient customer inquiring about his order. I figured I had held her up long enough in conversation and should let her get on with her work.
I returned to my table to begin the onerous task of writing about, and making sense of, my magical time aboard Kalea with Captain Bob, that motley crew of reality-show cast members, and one remarkable Chef Lua.
But, alas, the writing would have to wait, as that short and potent introduction to 'ecological economics' had rudely hijacked all of my current thoughts.
My own thinking in recent years on ethics, energy, the economy, and the environment painted a picture of a global economy in transition away from an ‘empty-world’ era in which human-made capital like homes, factories, tractors, and fishing boats were the limiting factor in economic development and toward our current ‘full-world’ reality today in which the remaining natural capital — forests for timber, petroleum deposits for crude oil, fisheries for fish — have become the limiting factors.
In the ‘empty-world’ economics of the past, resources from natural capital were considered free goods, not including harvesting or extraction costs, and were therefore freely plundered.
But society experienced a Great Acceleration in the production and accumulation of human-made capital after World War II through the consumption of fossil fuels and the rapid growth of market economies. This shift radically changed our relationship to natural resources and has dangerously tipped us out of balance with the rest of the living world.
As a response to our current ‘full-world’ economic condition, stocks of natural capital like timber, oil, and fish are today being liquidated to temporarily keep up the flows of natural resources that support the sunk-cost value of an oversupply of capital infrastructure like sawmills, refineries, and fishing boats.
But material consumption and GDP growth are merely means to that end, not ends in themselves. Obviously, the goal of any human economy should be to sustainably improve human well-being and quality of life.
Does it not make more sense today to replace the goal of constructing and motivating ‘consumers’ that seek to maximize consumption with the the goal of nurturing engaged ecological citizens that seek to maximize well-being?
Business-as-usual ‘empty-world’ economics would surely only increase existing stresses along fault lines of ethnic and religious divides, especially in areas with dense, resource-constrained populations, that could easily rupture and cause massive social unrest, violence, and widespread suffering.
Surely, any new economic system going forward should focus on qualitative over quantitative improvements, through more efficient use of energy and materials, cooperative alliances, and recycled ‘closed loop’ cradle-to-cradle waste flows.
It should favor a developing economy — not necessarily one that is growing — an economy that is getting better, not necessarily bigger — with more efficient use of energy, materials, and knowledge.
Developing economies should opt to shift investments away from human-made capital accumulation and toward natural capital preservation and restoration.
And technology should focus more on increasing the productivity of existing natural capital than on increasing the productivity of human-made capital.
Progress should be defined differently: as reforestation, restocking of wildlife populations, and replacing polluting and depleting petroleum energy stocks with cleaner and leaner renewable energy flows.
Our current economic culture values financial capital above all other forms and is single-discipline, human-focused, short-term, mechanistic, atomistic, and assumes static human preferences. And its prime directive is growth.
Any new economic system should place much higher value on social/ecological capital over financial capital and be multi-disciplined, multi-species, long-term, dynamic, systems-oriented, and recognize evolving human goals and aspirations. Its prime directive must be balance.
Ultimately, it should fundamentally and dramatically transform our current troubled and immature relationship with each other and with the living Earth on which we all depend.
A more mature economy would create a safe and just space for all of humanity going forward.
Ethically — and to prevent social and civilizational collapse — we would need to meet the needs of a large, diverse, and growing human population with a minimum social foundation of food, water, housing, energy, education, health, income and work, peace and justice, social equity, political voice, gender equality, and community.
But collectively, we are at risk of overshooting many critical planetary ecological boundaries including climate change, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, deforestation, chemical pollution, biogeochemical flows, freshwater withdrawal, and ozone depletion.
Breaching these boundaries threatens the delicate balance that must be maintained if we are to continue to live safely, justly, and sustainably on this finely tuned life-rich planet.
Already, we have shot past four of these: climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, and biogeochemical flows. Ocean acidification appears to be next in line.
Climate scientists assert that to address climate change, we need aggressive carbon restrictions to bend the emissions curve dramatically. Global emissions need to be cut in half by 2030 on the way to net zero emissions by 2050, to have a decent shot at keeping temperatures under a safe 1.5°C.
The more of these boundaries that we overshoot, the greater the risks of destabilizing global events that could threaten the fragile stability of human civilization
I recalled a moment of uncharacteristic somberness and sincerity when Lua asserted,
“Mister Rico; either way, by design or by disaster — Earth's ecological balance will be restored. Will we make it happen, or will it happen to us?”
Enough! I needed to stop mulling over this enormous global economic predicament, over which I ultimately had very little control, and get back to the immediate work of writing my story. After all, resistance and change often begin with artful words and stories, for whatever they are worth. As T.S. Elliot put it, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
Perhaps some ‘conscious breathing’ would help get my mind back on track. A few long, deep breaths would surely do the trick.
Breathe in ... breathe out ... breathe in ... breathe out ...